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Making God Speak English

Gordon Campbell on English translations of scripture

In countries with a Protestant majority, the Reformation is widely regarded as a positive event, and its five-hundredth anniversary is regarded as an occasion to be celebrated. Here, for example is the first paragraph of the invitation that I received to write this essay.

500 years ago Martin Luther, an academic, made history. He did so in part through the medium of print, a technology that allowed him to spread ideas across the German lands and Europe. This October, when we celebrate the Reformation, millions of people will ask themselves what it meant and what it means today. But where will they find answers? Luther used the technology of the day to communicate his insights; reformers translated the Bible to make it accessible to everyone.

The model is of Luther as liberator, nailing his theses to the door in Wittenberg in October 1517, defying a corrupt Catholic church for its sale of indulgences, and giving the hitherto inaccessible Bible to the people. Luther is cast as an heroic figure, and we are asked to celebrate.

This model stands in need of resistance. The celebrants are unlikely to include Catholics, whose church is cast as the villain, nor will Jews be rejoicing: Luther was a virulent antisemite, and his Von den Juden und ihren Lügen (“On the Jews and Their Lies”) remains repulsive reading. Nor can it be assumed that the Bible was inaccessible. It is embedded in the Mass and in the teachings of the Catholic church, and Latin was not the elite language that it is now. Educated people received their education through the medium of Latin, which was the lingua franca of Europe. As for the vernacular, the tradition of translation in the German lands stretched back a millennium to Wulfila’s fourth-century translation into Gothic, and includes landmarks such as the fourteenth-century translations of the New Testament (the Augsburger Bible) and the Old Testament (the Wenceslaus Bible), and the High German Mentel Bible printed in Strassburg in 1466 (and reprinted many times in the next 50 years). There was resistance to unauthorized translations (an imperial edict in 1369, a papal rescript in 1375), but by the time Luther published his translation of the New Testament, the public had access to many vernacular editions of the Gospels, the Psalter, lectionaries and complete Bibles. None of this detracts from the impact and lasting importance of Luther’s translation, but to describe it as freeing the Bible for the people is misleading.

A similarly flawed popular historiography bedevils any consideration of the English Bible. In this narrative, Wyclif’s translation of the Bible leads to his exaltation as the morning star of the Reformation, and Tyndale is burnt at the stake for translating the Bible. Both of these facts are fictions. The English Bible has a longer and more complex history. The earliest surviving translations are the paraphrases traditionally (but fancifully) attributed to the shadowy seventh-century figure of Cædmon, including the hymn cited by Bede (“Cædmon’s Hymn”) and the Old English Genesis poems. There was no complete translation of the Bible into Old English (the language in use before the Norman Conquest of 1066), but passages from the Bible were translated for specific purposes: sermons delivered in parish churches, for example, quoted translations of the Bible from Latin into Old English.

An unknown number of early translations has been lost. In the early eighth century the Venerable Bede translated (in the final days of his life) the Gospel of John into Old English, but his translation has not survived. The earliest surviving English translation is attributed to King Alfred (the Great), who ruled Wessex in the late ninth century; he translated (or commissioned translations of) Psalms 1–50, and translated Exodus 20–3 in the introductory section of his Laws. Another source of translations is the tradition of the gloss. The Vespasian Psalter (now in the British Library), which is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation (the “Roman” version), contains an Old English gloss added in the second quarter of the ninth century. Similarly, the Lindisfarne Gospels (also in the British Library) contain an Old English translation written in red ink beneath of original Latin; the glossator was Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street. The translation was inserted c. 970, and is the oldest surviving rendition of the gospels into English.

In the wake of the Norman Conquest the English language changed, because French words of Latin origin began to enter the language The practice of Bible translation survived this transition, and the new form of the language is known as Middle English. In the late thirteenth century there were metrical translations into Middle English of individual books of the Bible (notably Genesis, Exodus, and the Psalms) and in the early fourteenth century the Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle undertook a prose translation of the Psalms in a northern dialect of Middle English. Rolle was not a conventional hermit: he lived in comfortably-furnished cells, dined well, avoided attendance at mass and enjoyed the company of aristocratic ladies. He was a peripatetic hermit, and his final cell was in Richmondshire, where he became spiritual director to the Cistercian nuns of Hampole Priory. One of the nuns, Margaret Kirkby, chose to become an anchorite; it was for her that Rolle prepared his English Psalter. His translation is important, partly because it precedes the better known Bible associated with Wyclif, but also because it was produced for a woman. It is, however, a guide to the Latin, not a free-standing translation, and so follows the Latin word order. Here is the opening of Psalm 23 in the Vulgate and in Rolle’s translation:

Dominus regit me et nihil mihi deerit: in loco pascuae ibi me collocavit Lord govern me and nothing shall me want: in stead of pasture there he me set.

“There he me set” reminds me of my schoolboy efforts at translation. It is not a translation that can be read for pleasure.

The best-known translation of the fourteenth century is popularly known as Wyclif’s Bible. Wyclif has been lauded since the sixteenth century as the “morning star of the Reformation.” John Milton was articulating a common opinion when he observed in Areopagitica that “this Nation [was] chosen before any other, that out of her as out of Sion should be proclaimed and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation to all Europe.” Warming to his argument, Milton explains that were it not for the obstinate perverseness of our prelates in their suppressing Wyclif as a schismatic, perhaps the names of Hus, Luther and Calvin would have been lost to history, and England would have reaped the glory of reforming Europe. This was clearly God’s intention, because he reveals himself, “as his manner is, first to his Englishmen.” Quite so.

Wyclif is a seminal figure in the long road to the catastrophe of the Reformation, with its legacy of decades of wars of religion and centuries of interconfessional animosities that live on in the twenty-first century, but the idea that he was the first translator of the complete Bible into English is a myth. The Middle English Bible, as Henry Ansgar Kelly calls it in his recent reassessment, was in Professor Kelly’s authoritative view neither the work of Wyclif nor of his Lollard followers, but was rather a wholly orthodox Bible with origins in the University of Oxford. It was immensely popular, because it enabled readers and their listeners to understand the readings from the Bible that they heard at Sunday Mass. He goes on to observe that, contrary to popular opinion, the Middle English Bible was neither condemned nor banned by the archbishop of Canterbury at the Council of Oxford in 1407, which insisted only on episcopal sanction for translations. In creating an imagined history for their movement, the Lollards claimed the Middle English Bible as their own, thus perpetuating the myth of the Wycliffite Bible that had been inaugurated by Henry of Knighton, who complained in the early 1390s that Wyclif had “translated from Latin into the language not of angels but of Angles [Englishmen], so that he made the Bible common and open to the laity, and to women who were able to read, which used to be reserved for literate and intelligent clergy.” Henry, who lived in the same small parish in which I live, was clearly appalled at the prospect of women being able to read the Bible in their own language. I dissent from the view of my late neighbor.

In the event, the Middle English Bible had no influence on later Bibles. It circulated in manuscript, but disappeared before the Reformation, and there is little evidence that the translation was consulted in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Indeed, the New Testament was not printed until 1731 (and then in only 160 copies); the complete Middle English Bible was first printed by Oxford University Press in 1850.

The English Reformation was an early form of Brexit. In the first instance it was not a Protestant reformation, but rather a repatriation of ecclesiastical sovereignty. Whatever his motives beyond the emotions stirred by Anne Boleyn in a miniskirt, Henry VIII was not in the first instance a convicted Protestant. In an age when theology was a living art, the theological convictions of individuals often changed over time. In 1521 he had published the Assertio septem sacramentorum, an orthodox Catholic work which, if not wholly the work of the King, certainly reflected his not particularly original views on papal supremacy and the perfidy of schismatics, particularly Luther. Seven years later, however, Anne Boleyn is thought to have lent the King her copy of Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man; he is said to have been delighted by it and to have declared, “Thys booke ys for me and all kynges to reade.” The story is first told in a letter of 1579, and a subsequent elaboration adds the detail that Anne used her fingernail to draw certain passages to the King’s attention. It is hard to judge whether the anecdote is true (there is no trace of such a copy in royal libraries or catalogues), and it is possible that the story is a myth of origin that falsely associates Henry VIII with Reformation thinking. That said, the story may contain a kernel of historical truth, and the King would certainly have warmed to Tyndale’s view that for princes to submit to the authority of the Church was “a shame above all shames.”

Henry’s ever-evolving theological convictions retained Catholic elements, but never embraced Lutheran doctrine. The fitful progress of his thinking is refracted in the various doctrinal formulations published during his reign. The most puzzling of these formulations is the Act of Six Articles (1539), which claims to reflect the King’s “most prudently pondering and considering” the issues. The Articles affirm traditional Catholic doctrine on matters such as transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and auricular confession, and so contrast markedly with Henry’s earlier resistance to doctrines such as purgatory and prayers for the dead. What is more striking is that these theological contentions are enshrined in statute, and dissent is to be treated as a felony punishable by a painful and protracted death. While this deeply Catholic bill was passing through Parliament, Henry authorized the publication of the deeply Protestant Great Bible (of which more below), and later made its purchase by parishes compulsory. This royal assent for a vernacular Bible overturned decades of resistance on the part of the episcopate. It is in the context of this resistance that William Tyndale must be considered.

The spark that ignited Tyndale’s passion for translating the Bible cannot be identified with certainty, but it may have been the publication of Erasmus’s text of the Greek New Testament and its accompanying Latin translation. According to the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe (not an irreproachable source), Tyndale declared to an unidentified “learned man” that “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” That meant not only translation, but also publication, which required episcopal sanction. Cuthbert Tunstal, the bishop of London, forbade publication; he was an anti-Lutheran polemicist, and abhorred the idea of a Lutheran Bible in English. Tyndale therefore travelled to Cologne, a major center of printing, to have his translation of the New Testament printed by Peter Quentell. The printing of Matthew’s gospel had not been completed when the printshop was raided. All that remains of this historic Cologne printing of 1525 is a single copy of the first twenty-two chapters of Matthew, now in the British Library. This fragment demonstrates that this was indeed a Lutheran Bible: it has a prologue by Tyndale, parts of which are translations of Luther; it also has marginal notes, many of which derive from Luther.

Cologne was a Catholic city, and Tyndale decided to resume printing in Worms, which was Lutheran. The New Testament was published by Peter Schoeffer in 1526, shorn of prologue and notes. Copies were immediately smuggled into England (and Scotland), and prompted the ire of the normally irenic Bishop Tunstal, who in prohibiting it acknowledged the success of its distribution, describing it as “that pestiferous and most pernicious poison dispersed throughout all our diocese of London in great number.” Tunstal was averse to persecuting heretics, so instead of prosecuting the smugglers, Tunstal bought as many copies as he could, and arranged for them to be burnt at St Paul’s Cathedral on October 27, 1526. Tunstal was learned, and had excellent Greek. It therefore seems odd that in his sermon on the occasion of the bonfire he claimed to have detected 2,000 errors in Tyndale’s translation. This is a preposterous claim, and can only be understood in the light of the fact that Tyndale’s translation deviated from the Vulgate text (which it does), because he was translating from Greek rather than Latin. Tunstal’s attempt to exterminate the Cologne edition was remarkably successful: only three copies are known to survive, of which only one (in the Stuttgart Landesbibliothek) has its title-page.

Tyndale then turned to the study of Hebrew. It is not known where he learned the language, but Worms had a centuries-old Jewish community and a Judenschul, so that is a distinct possibility. In January 1530 Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch began to appear. The First Book of Moses called Genesis began with the account of the Creation that in the opening verses declared: “Than God sayd: let there be lyghte and there was lyghte. And God sawe the lyghte that it was good: and devyded the lyghte from the darcknesse.” These words were handed down through later translations before arriving in the King James Bible, which is the conduit that carried them to the present. Again, this is a thoroughly Protestant translation; the pope is repeatedly traduced in the notes. Even at this early stage, one of the hallmarks of Protestantism was hatred of Catholicism. Then as now, it is an unedifying sight.

The interconfessional hatred created by the Reformation worked both ways. In 1529 the distinctly unsaintly Thomas More published his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, in which he denounced Tyndale as a more egregious heretic than Luther, and excoriated Tyndale’s New Testament as Protestant propaganda that wilfully mistranslated the Bible. He was appalled that Greek presbuteros was translated as “senior” instead of “priest”; ekklesia as “congregation” rather than “church”; agape as “love” rather than “charity”; and metanoeo as “repent” rather than “do penance.” Tyndale replied, to which More responded with his vast and rambling Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-33), a 2,000-page behemoth that only the most assiduous of scholars has read to the end. I am not numbered among them, but others more diligent have culled descriptions of Tyndale as “a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil,” “discharging a filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth”). Within a few years, More had been beheaded and Tyndale burnt. Such judicial executions anticipate in miniature the deaths in the wars of religion that were to follow. The legacy of the Reformation is not a pretty sight.

Tyndale was not able to finish translating the Bible. After his betrayal he was imprisoned until he was executed. He asked to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening, adding plaintively (in Latin) that “it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.” He also asked to have “the Hebrew bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary that I may pass the time in that study.” His purpose was not, as is often said in popular accounts, to continue his translation; if that were the case, he would have asked for paper. He simply wanted to study. It is not known whether his requests were granted.

Tyndale’s most important successor was Miles Coverdale, a former Augustinian friar who eventually became the Protestant bishop of Exeter. Tyndale had managed to translate almost half of the Old Testament before his death, so it was Coverdale, living in exile in Antwerp, who had the honor of publishing the first complete Bible in English; I use “complete” in the Anglican and Catholic sense, in that the Apocrypha were included. Coverdale explains in his dedication of the edition to King Henry VIII that he has “purely and faithfully translated this out of five sundry interpreters.” The most important of the “interpreters” was Tyndale, whose New Testament is printed in revised form. The other four “interpreters” were Luther, Zwingli (the Anabaptist “Zürich Bible”), Jerome (the Vulgate) and the Dominican friar Sante Pagnini, who had published a Latin translation of the Bible in 1528. In short, Coverdale was translating the Old Testament from German and Latin, not from Hebrew and Aramaic.

Coverdale’s Bible is of course Protestant. He followed Tyndale in his rejection of ecclesiastical terms, using “congregation” instead of “church” and “love” (the noun) instead of “charity.” The honor accorded to Tyndale as the voice of the English Bible is wholly appropriate, but in extreme form, when Tyndale is said to account for 90% of the New Testament in the King James Version, it becomes merely silly. Among the damage that such claims inflict is the downplaying of Coverdale’s importance. Consider, for example, Coverdale’s wondrous rendering of Psalm 25:6 (“call to remembrance, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy loving kindnesses, which have been ever of old”), which brought the word “lovingkindness” and the phrase “tender mercies” into English and into the mainstream of biblical translation. The translators of the King James Version drew heavily on Tyndale, but sometimes preferred Coverdale. His translation of Isaiah 55:6 (“Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is nigh”), for example, passed into the KJV with two tiny changes (the addition of a second “ye” after “call,” and the substitution of “near” for “nigh”). Similarly, in Matthew 25:21 and 23, the translators of the KJV bypassed Tyndale (“go into thy master’s joy”) in favor of the translation that originated with Coverdale’s “enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Coverdale’s most enduring translation was his psalter, because it was his translation of the Psalms, as revised for the Great Bible of 1539, that became the psalter of the Book of Common Prayer, and so served as the liturgical text for the Church of England for centuries to come, until it was replaced in the Alternative Service Book of 1980 by a new translation. When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1662 (the version cherished by traditional Anglicans), citations from the Bible were for the most part replaced by the version in the King James Bible. The Psalter, however, remained Coverdale’s. His version of Psalm 137:1 (“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion”), for example, was reworked by later translators, so the King James Version has “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” It is pleasing that in the new translation in the Alternative Service Book, the verse is rendered “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion.” Some translations burn themselves so deeply into the national consciousness that subsequent translators struggle to escape them.

In 1537, the publisher John Rogers, who eventually was to be burnt alive for heresy, produced the first authorized English Bible. The Pentateuch and the New Testament were Tyndale’s, and Rogers also used Tyndale’s unpublished translations of the Old Testament books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles. The rest of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha were taken from Coverdale’s versions. Rogers published the edition pseudonymously as the work of “Thomas Matthew,” and so it is known as the Matthew Bible. This Bible, like the Coverdale Bible, was dedicated to King Henry VIII, but there was a difference: whereas the title-page of Coverdale’s Bible was adorned with a picture of King Henry VIII distributing Bibles, the title-page of the Matthew Bible went a step further, declaring it to have been printed by “the King’s most gracious licence.” The Matthew Bible was well received. Thomas Cranmer commended it to Thomas Cromwell, declaring that “as for the translation, so far as I have read thereof I like it better than any other translation heretofore made.” Cromwell had the previous year embarked on a campaign to place an English Bible in every parish church, but the Matthew Bibles were too small to have the dignity requisite for a church Bible, so it was decided to commission a new version that was suitable for churches.

The commission was entrusted to Miles Coverdale, who instead of revising his own Bible chose to undertake a version of the Matthew Bible. As the finest presses were in Paris rather than London, Coverdale moved to Paris to prepare the edition. Printing began in May 1538, and in expectation of rapid publication, Thomas Cromwell ordered that “a Bible of the largest volume in English” be distributed to every parish in England by Christmas 1538. This aim was frustrated by the Inquisition, which seized the bound copies and sold the unbound pages to a haberdasher for use in the making of hats. The English publishers rescued their staff, the type, the unused paper, and some printed sheets of the Old Testament (Genesis to Job) and the New Testament (Matthew to 1 Peter), and returned to London, where printing resumed. By April 1539 the print-run of 3,000 copies was ready, but they were kept in storage because Cromwell was negotiating for the release of the 2,500 copies confiscated by the Inquisition. In November the Bible was published. It became known as the “Great Bible” by virtue of its size (15” x 9”).

The accession of the resolutely Catholic Queen Mary to the throne in 1553 put an end to the printing of English Bibles and to their use in churches. Protestants fled from the fiery persecution that she inaugurated with the judicial murder of John Rogers, the publisher of the Matthew Bible; he was burnt alive in the presence of his wife and eleven children. The principal gathering points of the Marian exiles was Geneva, where William Whittingham (later dean of Durham) became a senior of the English church. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth most of the congregation returned to England, and Calvin suggested that Whittingham became pastor of the Geneva church. As the pastoral responsibilities eased with the diminution of the congregation, he was able to devote himself to scholarship. He was the powerhouse of the Geneva Bible, translating the New Testament himself (published 1557) and helping to co-ordinate the translation of the Psalms (1559) and the Old Testament (published with the Apocrypha and the New Testament in 1560); the complete Bible was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. The Old Testament is largely based on the Great Bible; many of the changes reflect scholarly study of the Hebrew original and of translations into Greek and Latin. The New Testament also uses the Great Bible, but Tyndale’s phrasing is sometimes adopted, and attention is paid to the Latin translation by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva.

The Geneva Bible was intended for individual ownership rather than distribution to churches as a pulpit Bible, so most editions were published in small octavo editions that were easy to hold. It was the first English Bible to adopt verse numbers. This unhappy innovation distorts the Bible, in part because it was not well done (e.g., divisions sometimes occur in the middle of sentence), but also because it gives the impression that the Bible consists of a series of detached statements. The King James Version was destined to make a bad idea ever worse, because it printed each verse as a separate paragraph, and thus gave rise to the recitation of proof texts. There have been periodic attempts to resist this distortion of the Bible, notably in the Cambridge Paragraph Bibles, but to little avail. It is an entrenched convention, rather like the English habit of eating fish on Fridays, 500 years after the Reformation.

Individual ownership meant private study, and all churches were nervous of the laity becoming too independent in their reading of the Bible. In May 1543, in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign, parliament passed the Act for the Advancement of True Religion, which prohibited the reading of the English Bible to women, artisans, apprentices, and those of inferior rank to yeomen, farmers, and manual laborers. Similarly, in Calvin’s Geneva, groups were not allowed to assemble for Bible study unless a minister or a professor at the Geneva Academy was present. In the Geneva Bible, guidance was offered through a system of chapter headings, maps, “tables” of theological material, and marginal notes, all of which steered the reader to a Calvinist understanding of the Bible. The presence of notes that reflected a particular theological position – anti-episcopal and sometimes anti-monarchical – offended those who maintained opposing positions; the decision to ban notes in the KJV was a direct reaction to the notes in the Geneva version.

The Geneva Bible became enormously popular, and was published in more than seventy editions between 1560 and 1640. In England, where about half a million copies were sold, it was printed (sometimes by the King’s Printer) from 1576 to 1640, and it became the Bible of the Puritan faction in England and in the Puritan diaspora on the continent and in America. Its readership, however, extended well beyond the Puritan party, because it was cheap and easily available. Despite its anti-episcopacy, its readers included ceremonialists such as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Whitgift, and William Laud; such readers continued to read it, or at least consult it, long after the KJV had been published. Indeed, the quotations from the Bible in “The Translators to the Reader” that long appeared in King James Bibles, are taken from the Geneva Bible.

The anti-episcopal notes to the Geneva Bible displeased the bishops in the Church of England, who naturally preferred a Bible that supported episcopacy. They therefore began to revise the Great Bible. In 1568 a revised version was published, and a second edition with more revisions was published four years later. Coverdale’s lively prefatory material was replaced by a solemn preface by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The large number of bishops on the revision committee led to it becoming known as the Bishops’ Bible. There were twenty editions, of which the last was published in 1602. The Bishops’ Bible is more notable for its dignity and its aspirations to majesty than for its clarity. The plain English of Tyndale and Coverdale, elevated slightly to reflect the standing of the Bible as a holy book, has been edged aside in favor of Latinate rotundity. Its scholarship is, alas, as lax as its prose is inflated. It was clearly the work of senior churchmen who had more pressing duties on their minds, and sometimes the translation is distressingly literal. Ecclesiastes 11:1, for example, which is familiar to KJV readers as “cast your bread upon the waters,” was translated by a weary bishop as “lay thy bread upon wet faces.” Whatever its faults, the Bishops’ Bible was authorized, and so became the Bible that was read in churches; at home, however, readers often preferred the good demotic English of the Geneva Bible.

The popularity of English translations of the Bible that led unwitting readers to heresy distressed English Catholics, and the reluctance of the Catholic church to sanction translations was deemed to be offset by the practical need for a Catholic antidote to the poison of Protestantism. A translation was begun at the English College in Douai (then spelt Douay), but the College moved to Reims (then spelt Rheims) in 1578, and the work was completed there. The driving force behind it was the Oxford Hebraist Gregory Martin. The New Testament was published in 1582 (with notes by Martin’s colleague Richard Bristow) and the Old Testament followed in 1609 (as far as Job) and 1610. In both Testaments the translation was from the Vulgate, the standing of which had been affirmed by the Council of Trent, though in the case of the New Testament the Greek was of necessity consulted. Latin lacks articles, so in order to decide whether Jesus was declared to be a son of God or the son of God, there had to be recourse to the Greek text.

Much of the translation is fluent and elegant, but sometimes dogma or literalism intrude, so in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:11), our daily bread becomes “supersubstantial bread,” and in Philippians 2:7 (2:8 in KJV), Jesus is said to have “exinanited Himself”; neither phrase trips off the tongue, because readability has been sacrificed on the altar of theological precision. On the other hand, Gregory Martin had an excellent ear for demotic English. Consider Mark 1:45, when the leper whom Jesus has healed, in the words of the Bishops’ Bible, “began to tell many thynges, and to publishe the saying.” This is a perfectly adequate translation, but Reims has the much superior “began to publish and to blaze abroad the matter.” The phrase “blaze abroad” is good Early Modern English, and is true to the Greek. Translators of the King James Version were not allowed to consult this heretical Bible, but of course they did, and the phrase appears without acknowledgement as “beganne to publish it much, and to blase abroad the matter.” The scholarly probity of the Douai-Reims Bible meant that it had to be taken seriously by later translators, as indeed was its New Testament by the translators of the KJV; had the Old Testament been published sooner, it might have had a comparable influence.

The culmination of Reformation translations of the Bible in England was the King James Bible, which, with the extinction of the Geneva Bible in 1640, became the only show in town, and faced no competition for centuries. Acres of print, much of it idolatrous, have been lavished on this Bible, which is undoubtedly a fine translation, but shows few signs of having been inspired directly by the Almighty, as some contend. But to what extent was it a Reformation Bible? In the first of the two title-pages, the most prominent figures are Moses, on the left, and Aaron, on the right. The presence of Aaron in his priestly robes serves to emphasize the role of the priest in the English church. Whereas Puritans insisted on the priesthood of all believers, the church saw the priest as mediator of the teaching of the church to the laity, and Aaron is an emblem of that priesthood. His prominent position is a rebuke to presbyterian Protestantism. Similarly, the Catholic More had censured the Protestant Tyndale for using new ecclesiastical terms, such as “congregation” rather than “church.” The King James Version directly repudiates such Reformist sentiments: the third of the rules that guided the translators was “the old ecclesiastical words [are] to be kept,” viz. the word “church” not to be translated “congregation,” etc. The King James Version is not a markedly Protestant Bible, and in the decades that followed its publication, Puritans repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with it.

In the end, objections died away. The King James Bible prevailed, and became a national treasure. In an oft-quoted passage, the nineteenth-century Catholic convert Frederick William Faber argued that the King James Version was the reason why the English refused to make the sensible decision to return to the Catholic faith:

Who will say that the uncommon beauty and marvellous English of the Protestant Bible is not one of the great strongholds of heresy in this country? It lives on in the ear like a music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells which the convert hardly knows how he can forgo. Its felicities seem often to be things rather than mere words. It is part of the national mind and the anchor of the national seriousness. Nay, it is worshipped with a positive idolatry, in extenuation of whose grotesque fanaticism its intrinsic beauty pleads availingly with the man of letters and the scholar. The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses. The power of all the griefs and trials of a man is hidden beneath its words. It is the representative of his best moments, and all that there has been about him of soft, and gentle, and pure, and penitent, and good, speaks to him forever out of his English Bible.

The Reformation was a disaster for the Christian faith, but in the English-speaking world that disaster is mitigated in small part by the King James Bible, which 400 years after its publication continues to enrich our lives.


Gordon Campbell is Fellow in Renaissance Studies at University of Leicester and Lead Historian for the Museum of the Bible, which has just opened in Washington, D.C. He is grumpy about the Reformation, which in his view should be dated January 1518 (when the 95 Theses were printed in German), and should not be celebrated by academics unless they happen to be Protestant triumphalists.


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